Acts 28: Our Fathers, Your Fathers, and Jewish Unbelief

Acts 28 contains something of a provocative phenomenon that I see borne out elsewhere in the New Testament.

In 28:17, Paul, a believer, speaking to a generally neutral audience, begins his address with:

After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.

Note the phrase, “our fathers.” From Luke’s preface—“the Jews”—and Paul’s use of “our people” and “customs of our fathers,” it is obvious that the ethnic connection between Paul and his audience is in view here. Contrast this with Paul’s phrasing at the conclusion of his address:

And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: Go to this people, and say, ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive’” (Act 28:25-26).

When it becomes clear that the majority are rejecting the message of Jesus Christ, Paul suddenly separates himself from the audience by the use of “your fathers.” Paul did have a socio-ethnic connection with his audience, but he had discovered a far greater connection to be sought: the bond of the Spirit in uniting all believers to God through Christ. When it became apparent that his hearers were rejecting Christ, Paul disassociated himself with them by the provocative use of “your fathers.” “Your fathers” serves to identify Jews as unbelievers and also indicates it had been a common phenomenon throughout the nation’s existence. In the New Testament, when believers address unbelieving Jews, the phrase “your fathers” is a way of indicating separation from God’s grace.

In Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:47-48 Jesus condemns the Pharisees for following the example of “your fathers” in condemning the prophets. Just as the fathers of the Pharisees—Old Testament Jews—had persecuted the prophets, their sons—the Pharisees—persecuted Jesus. In addition to these passages and Acts 28:25, Hebrews 3:9 also uses “your fathers” to warn against following the example of Old Testament Jewish unbelief.

But Acts contains an even clearer example than Paul’s address in chapter 28. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 demonstrates the same pattern, but magnified. While he is seeking to persuade them, Stephen uses the term “our fathers” eight times (7:11, 12, 15, 19, 38, 39, 44, 45). But by the end of Stephen’s speech, when it is clear the Sanhedrin is opposed to the gospel, Stephen suddenly switches terms:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered… (Act 7:51-52)

Once again, “your fathers” is used to indicate Jewish unbelief. Not just Jewish unbelief in the gospel, but Jewish unbelief throughout the nation’s existence. There was always a portion of the Jewish population that resisted God.

The primary application of this bit of linguistic minutia is that God is no respecter of persons. King David has eternal life because he trusted in the Lord. King Ahab has eternal death because he forsook the Lord. The ethnicity of each man did nothing to determine their eternal state.

Why are these things important? Such teaching is important because of what I would call lazy dispensationalism. One of the rotten fruits of dispensational teaching has always been its fuzziness on Old Testament salvation. Its better representatives—Ryrie, Walvoord, MacArthur etc.—have done their best to correct this; but at the pew-level I would hazard the guess that most dispensation-taught Christians operate under the general impression that the vast majority of Old Testament characters were saved. In its worst forms, this has also led some to believe that Jews might also be saved today without trusting in Jesus Christ. In more moderate forms, it has led to the belief that Jews are “almost” saved, and might need just a little nudge to add Christ to their traditions.

Jesus and the apostles constantly battled similar forms of this aberrant theology. Many Jews thought they had God’s favor simply because of their race. To them the message was that every man enters the world with the devil as his father, not God (John 8:44) and that Abraham was justified before God as a Gentile, not a Jew (Rom. 4:10). Others thought that Gentiles had to become Jews to be saved, or act as a Jew to remain saved. The foolishness of such thinking was condemned by the church (Acts 15:10) and Paul (Gal. 3:3).

The use of “our fathers” and “your fathers” is not a strict Shibboleth; nevertheless it is a repeated pattern that serves to emphasize that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Jew and Gentile alike must enter the kingdom through him. There is no other way.

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Who is a true Jew? Revelation 2:9 & 3:9

I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Revelation 2:9

Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie–indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Revelation 3:9

Twice in the letters to the seven churches of Asia, Jesus mentions a group of people identified as, “Those who say they are Jews and are not.”  As if that statement were not perplexing enough, both times rather incendiary descriptions are added to this group: they are synagogues of Satan, liars, and will worship at the feet of Christians.  Immediately a very large section of American evangelicals are put on the defensive.  Here, in the same breath, we have mention of Jews, liars, synagogue of Satan, and God humbling said group.  The antisemitism bullets are ready to be fired!

But let us divorce the phrase “those who say they are Jews and are not” from the context in an attempt to take some of the passion out of the exegesis.  Just looking at that phrase alone what can we determine about the group?

What does it say?

The first thing that needs to be determined is, “What does the phrase actually imply?”  What is the truth that is assumed by the phrase?  In an attempt to further remove any prejudices, put the phrase in other terms.  If you heard someone say, “he says he is a professional baseball player, but he is not,” what could you safely assume?  I believe you could safely assume two things:

  1. There really is such a thing as a professional baseball player:  such a person actually exists.
  2. The person making the claim is not truly a professional baseball player.

So returning to the text we can safely assume two things:

  1. There really is such a group as Jews:  true Jews.
  2. Those making the claim to be Jewish are not truly Jews.

To paraphrase a T-shirt– there is a Jew, and you’re not him.

What could it mean?

So who are these people who say they are Jews but are really not?  I can think of three broad options:

  1. They are Gentiles who for some reason claim to be Jews.  Perhaps they do not really want to worship the Emperor, so they seek exemption under the umbrella of Judaism.  Maybe in Smyrna and Philadelphia there was some economic incentive to be Jewish.  For whatever reason, this group refers to Gentiles calling themselves Jews.
  2. They are ethnic Jews who are not practicing their faith according to Scripture.  Whether intentionally or not, they are practicing an apostate form of Judaism.
  3. They are ethnic Jews who have misidentified what being a true Jew is.  This is somewhat different than the second category.  These people practice an orthodox faith, yet the orthodoxy itself flawed.

What is the question?

In all of this, the real question is, “What is a true Jew?”  The statement under examination, “those who say they are Jews and are not,” is based on the fact that true Jews exist.  By condemning the “false” Jews, Jesus acknowledges the “true” Jews.  But who might Jesus say is a false Jew and a true Jew?

Comparing spiritual things with spiritual

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a clear answer to this question in the text.  So might the Scripture answer this question elsewhere?  Does the Bible speak about this true vs. false Jew dichotomy in other places?  In fact Scripture addresses this subject in various places and diverse manners.

Both Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8 record John (the baptizer) assailing ethnic Jews with the statement, “…and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”  This certainly leads in the direction of asserting that there is more to being a child of Abraham- hence, a Jew- than physical genealogy.  At the very least, John asserted that being a physical descendant of Abraham merited his audience members nothing with God.

While I assume this is what John meant, I know it is what Paul thought.  At the end of Romans 2 we read, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”  If this is not the jackpot, it is certainly a very handsome consolation prize.  Paul is seeking to answer the very question we are asking, “What is a true Jew?”  A true Jew is not a physical child of Abraham, but a Spiritual child of God.  It is not the physical circumcision made by man that counts, it is the heart circumcision made by the Spirit that matters.

Paul returns to a variation of this theme in Romans 4:11-12.  Again the question is, “Who is a true son of Abraham?”  Again Paul answers that physical circumcision is meaningless, but that whoever has the faith that Abraham had can claim Abraham as “father.”  This is also the argument of the entire chapter of Galatians 3.  The precise statements include:

Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.  And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.”   So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham. (3:7-9)

that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (3:14)

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (3:26, 29)

In Philippians 3:3 we see more about this circumcision of faith, “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh…”  Again we see that physical descent is meaningless (no confidence in the flesh).  Writing to the church, Paul says they are “the circumcision.”  What makes Christians in Philippi “the circumcision?”  Their relationship with the Trinity: they worship God, in the Spirit, while rejoicing in Christ Jesus.

Summary and Conclusion

So a true Jew is:

  1. Not necessarily a physical descendant of Abraham (Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8; Rom. 2:28; 4:11-12; Phil. 3:3).
  2. Someone who has the same faith Abraham had (Rom. 4:11-12; Gal. 3).
  3. Which faith includes a work of the Holy Spirit circumcising the heart (Rom. 2:28-29; Phil. 3:3).
  4. Which heart circumcision brings one into worshiping relationship with the Holy Trinity (Phil. 3:3) by way of one’s union with Christ (Gal. 3:26, 29).

What Scripture makes abundantly clear in the New Testament is that true Jews are more commonly known to us as Christians.  If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ to worship God, you are a true Jew.

So who are “those who say they are Jews and are not?”  While the first option above was Gentiles claiming to be Jews, I find it completely irrational and cannot find anyone who seriously suggests it as an interpretive option.  As for options 2 and 3, there is not much difference since both deal with ethnic Jews: the same people addressed and rebuked in Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8; Rom. 2:28-29; Gal. 3; and Phil. 3:3.  Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 speak to and rebuke the same false Jews: all those physical sons of Abraham who have no relationship with God.  Those who say they are Jews and are not are still with us: worshiping on Saturday in the synagogue, denying the Lord who bought them.  Many Evangelicals call them Jews, the apple of God’s eye, God’s chosen people, etc.  Jesus simply says they “are not.”

Praise God for the circumcision not made with hands.